Stories from Ancient China: The Origin of the Snack 'You Tiao'

“You Tiao” is Chinese for fritters of twisted dough. “You” means “fried.” “Tiao” means “strips.” It is a Chinese speciality usually served with soy bean milk at breakfast. The legend has it that it was invented by two people in Ling’an, the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty and that the original name of “You Liao” was “Fried Kuai.”

The depraved Prime Minister Qin Kuai and his wife Wang of the Southern Song Dynasty were so jealous of the dynasty’s most loyal and devoted general, Yue Fei, that they betrayed the Southern Song Dynasty and formed a secret liaison with the invading Jin state of the northern tribe. They designed a vicious scheme to frame Yue Fei and murdered him at Fengboting. When people of the Southern Song Dynasty heard the news of Yue Fei’s having been murdered by Prime Minister Qin Kuai, they were filled with rage. Everyone repeatedly condemned Qin Kuai and his wife in the streets, markets, teahouses and restaurants.

There were two food vendors on the riverbank of the Anqiao River at the time. One food vendor carried toasted sesame pancakes and the other carried fried sweet rice balls. One day the sesame pancake vendor was cleaning his stove and the rice ball vendor was smoking a pipe after he put away his deep fry wok. They started chatting and of course they immediately changed to the subject of Yue Fei’s wrongful death. Both of them were filled with rage and a feeling of injustice. They decided that they should devise a way to express their opinion. Finally the pancake vendor had an idea. He sculpted miniatures of two people out of dough. One of the figure represented Qin Kuai, and the other represented his wife Madam Wang. Then he grabbed the dough cutter and started slashing the miniatures of Qin Kuai and his wife.

The rice ball vendor thought that was not enough to release his rage. He brought his deep fry wok to his neighbour’s stove. Next he re-sculpted the two figures and twisted them together into one piece of dough with their backs together. Then he threw the dough into the hot wok and deep-fried the dough representing Qin Kuai and his wife. While he was frying the twisted dough in the hot oil, he shouted out loud, “Hey! Come see Kuai being deep-fried! Come see Kuai being deep-fried!”

When the passersby heard about Kuai being deep-fried, they were curious to find out what was going on. Everyone gathered around the stove and saw the two ugly figures sizzling in the hot oil. They immediately knew whom those atrocious figures represented. Everyone started to call, “Come see this! Fried Kuai! Fried Kuai!”

It happened that Qin Kuai was on his way home from the imperial palace and was passing by Anqiao River. When he heard “fried Kuai” in his carriage, he was outrageous! He stopped the carriage and sent out soldiers to arrest the men who were having him deep-fried at once. Soon the soldiers brought the two food vendors and the hot wok before Qin Kuai. When he saw two atrocious-looking figures in dough being deep-fried in hot oil, he was so furious that his whiskers started to shake! He jumped out of the carriage and shouted at the two food vendors, “You have the temerity to have me deep-fried! Are you intending to subvert the government?”

The sesame pancake vendor replied in an unusually peaceful mind, “We are only common food vendors and are least interested in subverting the government.”

Qin Kuai asked, “In that case, how dare you insult me by using my name in your product?!”

The man replied, “Your Grace, it is a coincidence that my product sounds like your name. However, it is written differently. Your name is written as 檜, but in my product it is written as 燴!”

Then the crowd started to back him up aloud, “He is right! They are two different Chinese characters with the same sound!” Qin Kuai was speechless. He looked at the two atrocious figures floating in the hot oil and shouted at the crowd, “Shut up! How can you possibly call it food? It has turned brown and clearly not edible! You two are obviously trying to gather people to create trouble! And now you are lying to me!”

Upon hearing Qin Kuai’s accusation, two men immediately stepped up and said, “It has to be fried like this! It must be fried like this!” They scooped the “fried Kuai” out of the hot oil and started eating it. They even kept complimenting its taste while eating fried Kuai. “Delicious! It is absolutely delicious! It is so crispy and tasty that I want to swallow it without chewing!” Qin Kuai was so outraged that his face turned purple. He returned to his carriage angrily and fled from the crowd quickly.

The news of the thuggish Qin Kuai being deep-fried and devoured was immediately known to the entire capital city. People from all over the city hurried to Anqiao to have a taste of fried Kuai. The two food vendors combined businesses and specialised in making fried Kuai from then on.

Because it took a long time to sculpt the faces of Qin Kuai and his wife, the customers had to wait in the very long line to purchase fried Kuai. They designed a simple version of fried Kuai. They made many small strips of dough and twisted two strips together before frying it in the wok. One strip represented Qin Kuai and the other, his wife. But it is still called fried Kuai.

At first the fried Kuai caused quite a sensation because people wanted to eat it to release their rage, but soon they became very fond of its taste. Besides, it was very affordable, so it quickly became the most popular snack in town. Soon many food vendors in Ling’an started to make fried Kuai as well. Eventually the food was introduced to other cities of China and fried Kuai was given a different name “You Tiao.”

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